An avoidable tragedy has victimized yet another fine gundog. The young dog was a hard-charging Wildrose retriever. The pain of the loss of this athlete still is with his owner. The avoidable circumstances, heat exhaustion, overexertion in the hot summer afternoon sun at the hands of the dog's trainer … an avoidable loss caused by mishandling.
I have discussed this topic before in several articles. But the loss of the Wildrose retriever brings the matter once again to the forefront of my attention. Since the heat is with us now and will extend into early shooting season in the South, I find it important to discuss the prevention of heat exhaustion in hunting dogs once again.
Retrievers, pointers and other high-energy, athletic animals have enormous enthusiasm for their job, often to the point of self injury. Many just will not quit. On hot, dry days, body heat builds in the running dog and unlike humans they cannot rapidly dissipate the heat by sweating.
Heat exhaustion, like in humans, comes on quickly as body temperature continues to rise at a faster rate than the dog can displace it. Dogs reduce body heat in three ways: panting, evaporation from a wet body and a small amount of heat loss can be lost through the pads of their feet.
On hot days, ground heat prevents the latter from being beneficial and overexertion produces heat faster than the dog can dissipate it through the mouth resulting in heat exhaustion.
Pre-season/training condition is the first step in preventing heat exhaustion. Get your dog in shape before intense training programs or early hunting season like dove or quail.
In the off season, often our hunting pals live the soft life of air conditioned homes and cars, get overweight and out of shape for strenuous exercise. Begin conditioning with long walks and swims in the early morning then move to short retrieves in shady areas and longer swims.
Gradually extend the duration of sessions and pay particular attention to diet. It is advisable to move your gundog to an outside kennel to gain weather acclimation. If hunting or tests are to be run mid-day, you must slowly get the dog accustomed to working in hotter conditions, but slowly, under a watchful eye with plenty of available water.
One can condition their dog occasionally by "roading" the dog once he is in shape. Have the dog jog along beside a bike or ATV — be careful with this method.
Train in the early morning when the ground and air is cooler and less humidity persists. The dew is a bonus, much better than a sun-baked field. To extend sessions, I often run 50 percent of all retrieves in water keeping the dog's body wet.
Remember to plan sessions. Each exercise should have meaning to prevent wasted energy. Hold off on extension exercises and flushing training for cooler weather. Think about it. You can run four 25 foot retrieves with the same energy of a single 100 foot retrieve.
I also use smaller, lighter bumpers to reduce weight and absorb mouth saliva to prevent sloppy delivery. The Wildrose bumpers or other canvas bumpers are much more conducive to carrying in hot weather as opposed to rubber or plastic bumpers.
Seek out shaded areas to avoid exposure to the direct sun. If water is not available, intermittently stop retrieves and focus on other skills that require little exertion such as obedience, sit to flush/shot, steadiness, etc. These are valuable exercises and afford valuable cooling periods between retrieves.
Handlers must be well acquainted with the signs of heat exhaustion in their hunting dogs.
Simply, if it's hot, be aware.
A dog who is overheating will be panting heavily in fast repetition and the tongue will be hanging out and curling at the end in cup form. The mouth is dripping and they may have a glazed look in the eye. Often they show signs of a staggered gait or they may simply stand fixed.
This is when the untrained handler gets into serious trouble. One may misread the dog as refusing a cast, command or quitting. Force may be applied to gain compliance pushing the dog too far. Some dogs just don't quit until it's too late. It's up to you to quit before this point.
Get the heat exhausted dog to the coolest area out of the sun you can find. Get water in the dog. If you have a sports drink like Gatorade, use it. You must reduce body heat. Saturate the dog with cool water. Slowly apply cooler water. Don't hit the dog with ice water initially.
Find a shady or muddy area or one with leaves. Make a small indention filling it with water. Lay the dog down and cover with water repeatedly. If a pond or creek is available, get them in it. Remember, many shallow, still-water ponds hold hot water in the summer. This will inhibit the water's cooling effect.
Of course, transport your dog to the vet as soon as possible. But this can be a problem when you are some distance from a vet and you must act immediately.
On the hunt
Early season hunts on dove or upland birds require preparation. Your retrieves and hunts should be short. Keep retrieves in shaded areas out of direct sun. I use a runner's water squirt bottle containing cool water and give the dog a shot between retrieves. Also, remember to keep your dogs in shaded areas if left in the kennel at the truck. Keep water readily available.
Far too many dogs are overcome by heat exhaustion each year in training and in the field. A few common sense prevention measures combined with learning to read your dog may eliminate the unfortunate loss of a fine hunting companion due to heat exhaustion. Be prepared!